Tag: advocacy

Should Composers Read Music Critics?

Olin Downes

Olin Downes, music critic, 1947 (Wikipedia Commons)

John Supko, composer: Should composers read music critics? Yes, because reviews should be a delight for composers to read. If a premiere performance is reviewed, the review should be positive and sympathetic. Negative reviews are so old school, so pre-21st century. Critics can’t possibly imagine that negative reviews serve a purpose any longer, if they ever did. In the current era and for the foreseeable future, critics—an endangered cultural species—should consider themselves in a symbiotic relationship with composers, another struggling life form. Like the relationship between clownfish and sea anemone, composers provide essential “nutrients” to critics, and so a critic’s role should be primarily advocatory. Reviews of new pieces will also have an expository dimension, but critics might consider avoiding those topics best left for later—and more sustained—reflection, such as a work’s ultimate worth. Between advocating for composers and the new music they write, and explaining those works to a general readership, who would find time or space for carping?

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic: I agree that many composers might find value in reading some reviews of their own music and of their colleagues’. But I also think the work of a critic should speak to many audiences simultaneously and offer something more than advocacy and whatever you mean by “explaining.” Perhaps I should say what I try to do as a critic and why I think this might interest composers. The aim of my reviews is to describe concerts vividly and in a way that allows readers to disregard my judgment; to report accurately while inspiring readers to hear the music themselves. But something transpires in the process of describing a performance: the score disappears and the sound of the performance remains. The review grows from the thought and emotion the music evoked and uses the words I find to convey a personal response. The classical music critic of The New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross, captures this process, calling it “a very tricky thing.”  He discerns:

you are reporting on how you, yourself, felt. And this is where I start to think, “I’m sounding absurd,” but nonetheless there is a curious kind of labor in sifting through your own impressions, letting them settle—hopefully you have a little bit of time to process these impressions…

There is more than this in a concert review, of course, such as an account of the facts of the concert, relevant history and context, an assessment of the instrumentalists (and technology), self-aware advocacy, education, judgment, contribution to a broader critical conversation, and so on, but practiced description is the part of a review that may prove useful to composers. Description should be evocative, but it is rarely objective.  It is feedback translated into prose that momentarily closes a circuit of composing, interpreting, and listening. A concert review is a signal that a composer can use to ascertain if and what their music may be communicating. And it is different from the signals a composer might receive from a teacher, colleague, or friend. A composer may ignore a critic’s reporting and judgment or consider why someone who listens carefully reacts the way they do. I do not want to generalize about the value of reviews for composers. Some composers may be emotionally vulnerable in a way that serves their music, but precludes an interest in what listeners think. I hope some composers take the advice proffered by Michael Kors on Project Runway. Kors, chastising a contestant for taking his advice completely and abandoning their personal style, insisted, “listen to the world with one ear.” This is why a concert review should not be pruned of complex, even contradictory, emotions and opinion or staked to advocacy for the art form. Judgment and enthusiasm are perhaps the parts of a review that a composer can profitably overlook. Yet if these aspects are offered exclusively, what might be seen as a flowering plant, even one with prickles, becomes etiolated for other readers.

Supko: It’s all well and good to advise composers to disregard the judgments or predilections of the critic—or to write in a way that, as you say, takes this eventuality for granted—but those judgments will go on existing in cyberspace at least until the next solar storm, whether or not the advice was heeded. The unprecedented accessibility and apparent indelibility of reviews on the internet necessitate, I believe, a change in the way they are written and read. Foremost in my mind here are not the tender sensibilities of composers or even the damage a gratuitously negative review can do to a career, but rather the integrity and relevance of music criticism itself. There are many critics I admire and enjoy reading. I appreciate your discipline’s thoughtful engagement with mine, but I can’t disguise a certain uneasiness with the status quo; somehow it’s just not me.  When reviews were only accessible in newspapers and ultimately destined, like society pages and advice columns, to cushion cages and cuddle fish, the post-premiere assessment of the critic could be filed the-night-of without posing much of an ethical dilemma. If the verdict was positive, it could be clipped and pasted in a scrapbook. If not, well, at least it would one day physically disintegrate, along with its author.

Thumb the pages of Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective and marvel at the virtual anonymity of the critics fulminating therein. Such is the book’s charm, but let’s not ignore the object lesson it provides. If those poor souls had known what old Nikolai Leonidovich had in mind for them, I contend that they would have written differently. They couldn’t have known, of course, nor could they imagine a time when everything they’d ever published would be instantly accessible for scrutiny on a device the size of a cigarette case. You might say that libraries provided similar accessibility in bygone eras.  “Ah!” I might exclaim. “But books are not written and published overnight,” I might continue.  Which brings me to the gravamen of my position: no matter the quality or the quantity of thinking done in the hours between a double bar and a filing deadline, I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a critical assessment of a new musical work, usually heard only once, that merits a permanence surpassing the wildest dreams of monumental masonry. There was something in the “throwaway culture” of print journalism that made publishing first impressions less compromising for the critic. How many of today’s reviewers would like to rephrase or retract Google Result No. 3? I suppose we won’t soon know, but I’d consider any such admission a badge of honor.  The current editorial paradigm, a holdover from the 19th century, is cruelly inadequate for the 21st, and history demonstrates that that cruelty is principally visited upon critics, not composers. Who today remembers Jean Poueigh or, moreover, his savage review of Erik Satie’s Parade?  If one hears of him at all, it is most likely in reference to the defamation suit he brought against that composer for sending him retaliatory postcards (“I am writing this from where I shit on you with all my force”) that could have been read, so the suit claimed, by the concierge and every tenant of Poueigh’s apartment building.

Satie-Poueigh

Satie (left), 1917, the year he sent the postcards to (and got sued by) Poueigh (on right)

As with the invention of the book, technology has once again changed the way information is disseminated and consumed. Shouldn’t the prospect of tweeting or blogging one’s very next thought to an audience of three billion internet users be reason enough to slow down, think, forget, re-listen, think again, lay aside, return, re-re-listen, think some more, and then, perhaps, publish a few months later?  By and large, it hasn’t happened yet. Our appetite for content, especially of the commercial variety, won’t permit it.  Instead, it seems the speed and efficiency of modern technology have prompted us to attempt to think as quickly as our machines function so as to match their productivity. Don’t you agree there’s something fishy going on?

Edelstein: I keep a copy of Slonimsky’s Lexicon on my desk along with the collected writings of Virgil Thomson, John Rockwell, yellowed Xeroxes of Charles Michener, many others, and a few eight-inch floppy disks that I think of as my lost reviews.  Two related issues that you mention intrigue me:  the ramifications of new technology for critics, particularly the permanence and the pace of public writing, and the inherent value of concert reviews.

But first I need to procrastinate­­—in this case indistinguishable from empirical research. I think I might want to refer to a word used by New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe to evoke the sound of a violin—”burr.”  I find the original review easily and I’ll return to the drypoint analogy.  Now I’m looking for Woolfe’s review of an American Folk Art Museum exhibit of quilts at the Park Avenue Armory.  I don’t find it.  And I don’t find all of my own reviews as they were originally published; others require detailed search phrases.  I recall Anthony Tommasini’s thought-provoking essay, An Opera Can Take Its Time, or Yours, in The New York Times, a discussion of the pacing of opera; it was very much on my mind in 2009 when I was writing about Gregory Spears’s opera Paul’s Case.  I don’t find it immediately, or my own review as originally published. And then there was Daniel Johnson’s blog post on Nixon in China.  I thought I’d locate it via a link on Alex Ross’s website, The Rest is Noise.  No luck.  Bruce Hodges, Steve Smith, Heidi Waleson, David Allen, Kyle Gann, Anne Midgette, many others; I’m not finding specific reviews I’d like to revisit.  Mark Swed’s evocative feature on Ligeti.  No.  John Corigliano’s Andante website dustup with Justin Davidson; it was located on the website of Buffalo’s NPR News Station.  Nico Muhly’s sly responses to his critics (when he read them); I believe I could find these had we but world enough and time.  All this is to say that I don’t think the permanence of concert reviews and blogs on the internet is much of a drawback.  I suspect that some things will survive long into the digital age—I Love Lucy, almost certainly—but most concert reviews will fade from memory even if archived in the “cloud,” behind a paywall, or in a salt mine.

I also mean to suggest that there’s a rich critical conversation that may be of use to composers.  There’s immediacy in critical description that discloses how music sounds to an attentive audience member, tells a composer something about the spirit of the times, and something about fashionable obsessions that may cause music to be misapprehended.  And concert reviews reveal how critics change their minds about what they hear.  Is it challenging to separate description and judgment?  I don’t think so: consider Virgil Thomson on Sibelius.

Naturally I can’t find the contemporary music review by Zachary Woolfe I’d like to use as an example.  Instead I’ll return to Woolfe’s use of the word “burr” describing a violin “tone translucently smooth at one point and with a dusky burr at another.”  Burr, onomatopoeic, a rough sound, a word that conjures up the drypoint stylus incising a printing plate and forcing shavings to the edge; the process gives a texture that you see in fresh impressions, a texture that diminishes each time you print the plate, and a richness to the line.  Such a word in a review (a phrase or paragraph) can tell a composer something about the sound, something about a trustworthy stranger’s emotional response.

I agree the potential of the internet to enlarge and diversify the chorus of critical voices has not been realized.  And daily newspapers and magazines maintain a fast pace, but that pace need not be imitated.  There are few reasons independent critics and bloggers (who may not be paid and supported by editorial staffs) should not take considerably more time to think and write: time is one thing they have to offer composers, subtle idiosyncrasy and nuanced uncertainty another.  But there are a number of inspiring examples among the fast-paced professionals.  Steve Smith’s Night After Night playlist. Alex Ross’s website The Rest is Noise is a cynosure of the music world and a clearinghouse of selected links, resources, and reasoned opinion. NewMusicBox contributes similarly. The blog posts of composer Nico Muhly are a casserole of description and deliberation: orthography and gastronomy served as metaphor, seasoned with a composer’s preoccupations, and baked into redemptive allegories.  Muhly’s live tweeting during the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain seemed the apotheosis of precise description, immediacy and satire, spite and insight.  Muhly may be the Virgil Thomson of the smartphone set.

03-Muhly_Brokeback_Tweet1

04-Muhly_Brokeback_Tweet2

The credibility of a concert review is established within each review.  That’s its value for composers.  When a composer reflects on the alchemy of a review—how listening, reflection, and writing catalyze a memory of the music—they may gain perspective on their own work and their colleagues’.  When vocabulary and metaphor sprout from a composer’s sound world, some phrases become revelatory:  Alex Ross’s characterization of Philip Glass’s renown in popular culture, “his ubiquity as a purveyor of motorized musical melancholy,” or Alastair Macaulay’s classification of Gregory Spears’s Requiem, music accompanying a dance, as a “shimmering medieval aura—positively High-Elven.” A composer can do what they will with a critic’s words and metaphors, but I take Luigi Nono seriously when he equates listening with composing and performing—not to mention the sound of a tree falling in a forest.

Supko: Max Reger’s cheeky anticipation of recycling long ago demonstrated that composers will “do what they will” with critics’ work, and with trivial consequences. The more pressing question is: what will critics do with composers’? You’ve twice used the word “conversation” in reference to your craft, but there must be some mistake. Composers release works into the world with the understanding that public performances might be reviewed, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for an invitation to dialogue, much less critique. Unless the composer is very famous, most premieres—if they are reviewed at all—receive only one notice.  An assessment is quickly made, then published impressively beneath a masthead for all to read, and that’s that.  There exists no context or venue in which a composer might respond to a review or “converse” publicly with its author.  There are Letters to the Editor, certainly, but that seems like a premature escalation. There are blogs—you’ve mentioned Nico Muhly’s ingenious, controversial approach to his—but when has a critic ever responded to a composer’s blog post?  It would be impractical, I suppose, if reviews automatically initiated public exchanges with every concerned composer; the workload for a single critic would quickly become unmanageable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an easy solution.  Luckily, I’ve already proposed it.  Given the brief lead time and the slippery, subjective, even arbitrary, nature of first impressions, not to mention the precarious position concert music and other fine arts cling to in our country, reviews of new works should be written from a distance that befits the critic’s unfamiliarity and minimizes the composer’s need for rebuttal.  In other words, these reviews should be positive, sympathetic, and serve as an occasion for new music advocacy.  It may well be that the work in question one day falls into oblivion, but there’s no good reason for an editorial shove to help it along after only a single hearing.  Besides, if the work does ultimately slip into the oubliette of history, chances are it will pass more than a few critics on the way down.

Edelstein: I’m speechless.  But the recyclers of press releases won’t be.

***

John Supko

John Supko

John Supko is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University, where he co-directs The Emergence Lab with Bill Seaman. Supko’s music can be heard on the New Amsterdam and Cotton Goods labels.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Jeffrey Edelstein (far left)

Jeffery Edelstein is Director of New Music at Crane Arts, Philadelphia, and a critic.  Some of his writings are collected at his website: The Ultracrepidarian.

The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction

Volcano eruption

In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.—Ernst Fischer

Most rebels do not succeed, but there are a few who strike the zeitgeist of their times, a few whose intellectual, moral, and spiritual courage tap into the undercurrents of time and space, to face the unknown and emerge triumphantly with vision. The inner struggle connects to the outer struggle. The seismic upheaval of society corresponds within the deeply aware and sensitive individual and allows an opening for profound articulation.

Composers are visionaries and mediators of potential futures. “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life,” wrote Joseph Campbell. Composers hold a kinship with the life-affirming elemental and cosmic forces of creation. The sounds we make matter for our spiritual and physical well-being.

Composer John Luther Adams has said that his music is “not about anything” but it is about everything. Adams’s music is a ritual in altering consciousness. Here is a composer who, amidst rampant destruction of human and non-human communities, seeks to create a new culture from this deluge. His music is “about” many things: resilience, compassion, redemption of the human spirit amidst the collapse of industrial civilization and unprecedented ecological change. In April 1849, in the tumult of revolution in Germany, the young composer Richard Wagner conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden. In the audience was the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin. So moved by this experience, Bakunin told Wagner later that if there was anything worth saving from the ruins of the old world, this score would be it. In the ruins of our own world, we must look to Adams’s example.

Artists and organizations within the spiritual craft of music (from shamans to Beethoven to John Luther Adams) are not compatible with the short term, supply and demand, and superficial ethic of industry. True craft and meaning, which seeks to ask questions in order to experience and transform, lie within the humanities. It is the humanities that synthesize knowledge and experience, that take the long view, and empower the essence of life, the stuff of myths, and remind us of our individual insignificance in the vast unknowing of the cosmos—as Prospero said, “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

It is in the humanities where we sort out the milieu of experience and cultivate visions of truth through great works of literature, drama, scholarship, art, and music. And the crisis of classical music and the composer’s craft is not the irrelevance of the art to the times which must instead be made relevant or marketable, but that the times and culture have betrayed the values of the art form and marginalized its keepers. Journalism has been degraded to digital buzz-feeds, literature debased to bestsellers of laconic veneer, drama congealed to gory and lascivious entertainments, and composition to a ring-tone, a sound bite emptied of substantial expression and neutered of any real living creative power. The intellectual and spiritual materialism of music is pervasive and deceptive. I have a terrible suspicion that many composers, musicians, and arts administrators today have difficulty separating superficial musical creation from living embodiments of truth.

This war on the humanities is deliberate and calculated; this is done by making it nearly impossible to make a living as an independent artist—de facto marginalization in the social strata. My intent here is to articulate the very real altering of consciousness necessary to address our circumstances and fully empower our roles as creators. We must acknowledge our vulnerabilities and complacencies and strive to see beyond the façade, to challenge, and ask questions. These questions and challenges put forward to the culture must begin in the inner world of the composer.

All societies in decay make war on artists and intellectuals because they offer ideas that are uncomfortable, speaking intrinsic truths that upset the happy-thought spectacle. When societies break down, the language of social discourse and culture become fictitious. This need not be a downer, but a call of resolve and volition to those creators who intuit this struggle, and provide context to where we are in the greater cosmic journey and where you are in your own personal journey as a creator.

We must compose and create, curate and commune this new reality immediately. The deliberate and continuing marginalization of composers in American culture and the obfuscation of our social function and voice ironically provides, perhaps, the best opportunity for revolt, for our power lies in our powerlessness. We have nothing more to lose and everything to gain.

Composers must recover and reinvent a deeper sense of purpose. Composers must ask themselves, “Whom do I serve? Do I live in service of the self? Or do I live in the service of others? What do I offer?” How you answer or interpret these questions will tell you much, and will prepare you for a more substantial journey of discovery into what makes you an artist and why you have been chosen to live this life of a creator.

***
Justin Ralls

 

Justin Ralls is a composer, conductor, and writer hailing from the Pacific Northwest greatly inspired by the beauty of the natural world. His works have been heard at the Hydansaal in Eisenstadt, Austria, Oregon Bach Festival, Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, the Fox Scoring Stage in Los Angeles, and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, as well as venues in Salzburg, Rome, Boston, San Francisco, and beyond. His orchestra work Tree Ride won the 2013 James Highmith Composition Award and received Special Distinction in the 2014 ASCAP Rudolf Nissim Prize. His education includes degrees from The Boston and San Francisco Conservatories and he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Oregon under the mentorship of Robert Kyr.

Advocating for New Music

A crwod of people gathered in an auditorium to advocate for the arts

Photo by Scott Streble for Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, courtesy MCA

Let’s look at advocacy on behalf of new music that’s geared toward decision makers in institutions. Do you feel that your local arts foundation, board of education, university, and/or local government could be creating more and better programs to support contemporary music? Me too. Where do we start?

As with any political issue, your inner Che Guevara might be telling you to organize a protest or to occupy a square on your campus. While that could be a good way to draw attention to an issue, it’s clearly not the best way to get lasting results.

There is a better way, but it’s much less sexy: Working Through the System. I realize how this sounds, but I’m telling you it works. Nearly all the institutions that support the arts have a consultation process for the communities that they serve, and they need to hear from you. Even though the differences you will make will often feel slow and painfully incremental, based on experience it’s very possible to get tangible results, and it’s by far the best way to help contemporary music in the long run.

An advocacy campaign usually has two goals: to affect public opinion and to influence decision making by those in positions of power.[1] Usually the two approaches work hand in hand. Decision makers, especially politicians, often don’t create the bandwagon, they jump on it. The arts sector usually doesn’t have the resources needed for a big public campaign[2] so our focus here will be on targeting decision makers and inspiring them with our carefully worded reasons why they should be supporting new music.

[Disclosure: my partner Amanda Sussman’s book The Art of the Possible, A Handbook for Political Activism popularized the idea that reformers working through the system can achieve radical results. The points below are from her book and are adapted to new music advocacy.]

 

Strength Is In Numbers

Don’t be a lone voice. You are a much better advocate if you bring together people who feel the same way that you do and then speak as a one. Supporting groups like New Music USA (they didn’t put me up to this) can be a good way to have your voice heard on a national level. Also, general arts advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts speak as a united voice for all the arts across America. They even hold an Arts Advocacy Day during which they meet with congressional representatives in Washington. Supporting initiatives like these means that it’s more likely that composers will be included in the list of arts disciplines that are at the table.

Maybe joining these kinds of groups sufficiently scratches your advocacy itch. If so, you can stop reading here. However, if there are local issues that you would like to tackle here are more suggestions.

Don’t arrive after the fact

Even if you create a booming advocacy campaign, it will have almost no impact if it happens after a decision has already been made. Research is key. Is a foundation near you in the midst of changing its granting priorities? Time for a presentation to their board. Maybe your local school district is debating whether to allocate or cut support for specialized music programs. This would be a great time to meet with decision makers or their staff. Once a decision has been announced by an organization, it’s usually a done deal and it’s very difficult to turn back the clock.

It’s not about who you know.

Even if you happen to know someone at an institution, that person is not necessarily the one making the decision and your request may end up getting passed around in a mind-numbing bureaucratic loop. With a little research, you can make your own contacts. Find out who actually has the power to influence the decision you’re interested in. Once you have learned what the decision-making timetable is, work with others to organize a meeting with that person.

What are your asks?

Be sure that your objectives are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This can’t be overstated. If you are meeting with a university office or the head of a foundation, you will be much more effective if your request is SMART, rather than a vague request for more resources. Also make sure that your ask is tailored to the person you are meeting with. If that person is on the low rung of the ladder, your request may be simply: “Can you raise this with your boss?”

Run an effective meeting

Now that you have arranged your meeting (take a deep breath)…

Start with the good news. Create good will by congratulating them on work they have already done on behalf of contemporary music (if they have).

Make it safe. The best communicators are either advancing their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate. Learn to watch if the conversation is getting derailed and if so, bring it back to a safe place.[3]

Outline your constituency. Who are you speaking for? If you have support for your project from your colleagues, community, or an online petition, say so.

Clearly state your asks. Concisely lay out your SMART objectives. Tell them the problem you are trying to solve and then explain how your proposal solves that problem.

Actually listen to answers. If you get a very bureaucratic answer—it’s not their fault, they have to do this—there is good information hidden in there. Carefully listen to what is being said between the lines. Often it’s gold.

Leave a one-page brief. Leave a cheat sheet with the points you just outlined in your meeting. That way if they need to advocate internally on your behalf, they have effective talking points about contemporary music at their fingertips.

Follow-up with a thank-you note or email, outlining next steps that were decided in the meeting.

 

Your Messages

This is where we hone our elevator pitch. As with last week’s post, we’ll use a tone that assumes the listener is intelligent and curious but doesn’t happen to have a degree in composition. These were developed by myself and other composers while volunteering for the (yes, antiquated sounding, but effective) Canadian League of Composers but are adapted here to work in many different contexts. These also work at family get-togethers when your uncle asks what kind of music you write:

What is contemporary art music?

Composers create music for active listening that reflects the time and place in which they live. They usually do this by composing scores to be performed by classically trained musicians, but they also compose for instruments from many different musical traditions, such as the sitar or koto, and many composers are active in the fields of electronic music and improvisation.

The music itself—its textures, sounds, and shapes—is usually meant to be the center of attention.

The length of time spent composing these works is typically many months, and sometimes years.

The breadth of styles is huge and defies categorization.

Cultural legacy

Many composers are trying to create art that withstands the tests of time and helps define who we are, much like novelists such as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, or Cormac McCarthy have done. Our tradition generally takes a “long view” that will give the world a body of great music one hundred years from now and beyond. As with the music of Beethoven and even the works of Shakespeare, audiences may be small at first but may potentially be very large over the long run.

Diversity

There is no single “art-music” style. Composers produce strikingly different music from one another. This plurality is our strength as a community, and represents a genuine musical diversity.

Patronage

Historically, composers have very often required a patron offering financial backing outside of market forces to create their music, whether it was the church, royalty, aristocracy, or the university that supported them. Today, most composers rely on the patronage of visionary foundations, universities, public institutions, and individual sponsors, all committed to supporting the non-commercial value of the arts.

Economic and social contribution of the arts

It is well established that an active cultural sector is a magnet for talent and a catalyst for economic prosperity. Arts industries bring people together locally, globally, and virtually. Composers are an important and dynamic part of this industry, which is estimated to have totalled $46 billion in real value-added output.[4]

There is a lot more information on the social and economic benefits of the arts at the Americans for the Arts page and this document by the National Assembly of State Art Agencies.

Your points will of course be tailored to fit your objectives, but I hope this gives you an idea of the kind of language you might use when advocating for contemporary music, in whatever situation you might find yourself: with a donor, with a government official, or with your uncle. We need you, so good luck out there.


1. The mission of New Music USA for example (if you landed here randomly, you’re reading this on their website) is to do both: they promote composers’ work to the public and also aim to influence decision making about arts funding by working with other arts organizations.


2. Although this fantastic iPad ad with Esa-Pekka Salonen has been a windfall of free publicity for new music.


3. This is from Crucial Conversations, a must-read for any advocate.


4. Valuing Culture: Measuring and Understanding Canada’s Creative Economy [PDF] Conference Board of Canada Report 2008, p. 7.

Jim Staley and His Home for New Music: Roulette @ 35


A conversation on the stage of Roulette, Brooklyn NY
July 2, 2014—2:30 p.m.
Recorded by Spencer McCormick
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner

There are tons of stories about people who have devoted their whole life to new music, but few people have done so to the same extent as Jim Staley, who for more than a quarter of a century devoted his home to it as well. Soon after moving to New York City in 1978, Staley—fresh from the heady experimental atmosphere of the University of Illinois in the 1970s—started performing concerts in the lower Manhattan loft he was living in. Before too long, he realized that more folks might come to his own gigs there if he also presented others who might have a more substantial following in the space. Partnering with David Weinstein (one of them worked sound while the other manned the box office), they called the place Roulette.

From the beginning, the definition of new music at Roulette was extremely open. You were just as likely to hear jazz improvisers there as interpreters of notated contemporary music scores or electronically generated sounds. According to Staley:

The whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. … I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.

Staley’s adventurous and catholic tastes as a programmer emanate from his own work as a creative musician. A master experimental improviser on the trombone (“It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it … whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever”), Staley gets his greatest inspiration from interacting with other improvisers. He thinks of improvisation as a form of conversation and for him it really is—what others play in the moment takes him somewhere he wouldn’t have gone on his own and he influences his collaborators as well. For him, this give and take is far more artistically rewarding than creating music on his own:

I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll open some doors to coming up with different solutions or going different places, if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.

The cooperative nature of Staley’s own music making helped to make him an ideal partner for musicians as a venue manager, but it also took over his life. By the late 1990s, presenting music in his own home became more and more problematic. A club moved into the ground floor of his building and its pounding beat-driven pre-recorded soundtrack often wafted upstairs, sometimes even drowning out the concert he was hosting. To add insult to injury, the certificate of occupancy for his building changed and Staley could no longer viably present other musicians in his home. So Roulette leased out Location One, a gallery space in SoHo, and Staley and his team lugged equipment in and out of it every time they presented something there. It was an inviting ground-floor space, but by the time Roulette was starting to establish a new home there, most of the art galleries were getting squeezed out of the neighborhood they helped to define. The Downtown scene, which had defined an aesthetic for several generations, was slowly losing its birthplace. Meanwhile Brooklyn had become a hotbed for the indie music community and the abandoned Memorial Hall, a 14,000 square-foot auditorium built circa 1928 that was owned by the Y.W.C.A., became available. So Roulette moved boroughs and went from being new music in someone’s home to a home for new music.

*

Staley talking on the stage of Roulette

Jim Staley, photo by Spencer McCormick.

Frank J. Oteri: What I think has made Roulette such a vital venue all these years is that you’re not just somebody who loves this music; you actually make music yourself so you have an insider’s understanding of the point of view of the people who are performing here.
Jim Staley: I always had a feeling of what these people really want and what’s important to them. It’s always nice to have fruit in the dressing room, but what they really want is to be treated well and to have the work sound as they envisioned it. I think everyone’s very happy because they have a very pleasant experience with the staff and they feel like their work is realized as well as it can be.
I also have to say that back when we started things, the whole aesthetic and direction was founded on the two Johns: John Coltrane and John Cage. Those two people were the most important influences on my generation. I’ve always felt that if you’re talking about the American avant-garde, don’t just talk about Cage or the Downtown minimalist scene; you have to talk about the avant-jazz scene, too. There’s just as extensive a scene going on in jazz as there is in the new music, classical, electronics world. So that’s always been an essential part of our programming.
FJO: But before we get into a deeper discussion about Roulette, I want to talk about what you were doing before it opened 35 years ago. All the bios of you I’ve read in various places invariably begin with “Jim Staley moved to New York in 1978,” which is when Roulette began. What were you doing before you moved here? What was your earliest exposure to music? How did you get interested in this stuff?
JS: Well, my mother was a musician and she decided her kids were going to be musicians, or at least play instruments. She picked the trombone for me, and I think somewhere after third grade, I started taking lessons. It just sort of grew from there. It was a normal experience: band, orchestras, whatever. I went through high school and when I got into the University of Illinois, Bob Gray—a trombone teacher I’d known since I began playing—was there and I studied with him.
Vietnam was happening and I came up with number 20. So it was clear I was going in the Army one way or the other. I was in my sophomore year of college, and I decided to audition for the Sixth Army band in San Francisco which I heard had lots of professionals. So I ended up in San Francisco, which was a pretty interesting place to be in 1970. The band had about 80 members in it, almost all non-lifers. People had come out of orchestras and the L.A. scene; most of them had their bachelor’s or master’s degrees already. It was quite a fine group of musicians. And, of course, San Francisco was a great place to be—the whole Haight-Ashbury scene was active, Berkeley, everything. I played in the Berkeley Free Symphony when I was there. After about a year, I got transferred to Germany. I ended up in Berlin. That band wasn’t so good, but there were still some wonderful people and it was a great place culturally at the time.
FJO: So technically you were a private first class in the military.
JS: Yeah, I did three years in the Army, which was what was required. The advantage of the Army was it was three years. But you have to go through basic training. So basically that was two months of hell, and you’re off to play your instrument again. If you go into the Air Force, Navy, or Marine bands, you don’t go through basic training. But it’s four years.
FJO: A lot of people don’t realize this, but those bands do a lot of new music, though certainly not the kind of new music that you wound up becoming known for. But you were also around Haight-Ashbury in 1970, which was a wild place and time for music.
JS: It was quite, and I was like 20 years old.
FJO: So is that how you got turned onto all this avant-garde stuff?
JS: No, that happened in Berlin actually. I got connected to three different important scenes when I was there. I got to be friends with Slide Hampton; he put together a big band and I was lucky enough to play in that some. He took me as his guest to the North Sea Jazz Festival once and that was quite an experience—incredible jazz legends when I was there. Then I also met Jim Fulkerson. He’d been at my school so I knew of him from Illinois, but I’d never met him. When I was in Berlin, he got my name and called me up, and we got together and played some. He got me to help out in some of his pieces. It was quite a different thing. Those were hardcore minimalist days. I also got to meet a lot of the composers and artists that were involved in the DAAD [Deutsche Akademischer Austausch Dienst (e.g., the German Academic Exchange Service)]. At that time, the DAAD was a year or two-year residency. They had a dozen to twenty composers at any given time there and as many visual artists and writers and it was quite an international scene. It’s a fellowship that’s still going. I think Zeena Parkins is just going over for a six-month residency. Lots of different composers—Ron Kuivila, Nic Collins—have done it. But it’s scaled back considerably from the time when I was there. Berlin was still an isolated city at that time—the wall was still up—so there was a lot more cultural funding going on just to keep people coming there and to keep it occupied with younger, active people and not just the retired people who originally were there. Anyway, that was a really interesting scene.
One of the guys I met, Terry Thompson—who’d been in a Navy band and had studied in Indiana and then studied with the guys in Chicago—was there trying to get an orchestra job. So we got together and played duets a lot, which was very helpful to me. Then some friends of his at the Hochschule said they were going to see this great new thing going on, why don’t we come? So I went to the Akademie Kunst, and it was an early FMP [Free Music Production] concert with 30 guys lined up against the wall just blowing their brains out for two hours straight. You know, Albert Mangelsdorff and all that. I’m sure Peter Brötzmann was one of them. Barry Guy and Paul Rutherford were coming through all the time, so I spent time going and hearing those events as well. So it was the jazz scene, the minimalist scene, and then this European-style improv scene.

Staley performing on a didgeridoo

Staley performing on a didgerido in 1988, photo by Barbara Mensch.

FJO: I read that you have a music education degree.
JS: I started out in that, but when I came back from the Army, I just wanted to play. Somebody suggested that I switch, but I just took some extra courses that allowed me to get a performance degree as well, a B.M. as well as a B.S. I went on to the master’s because before I finished both my bachelor’s, I was already doing some master’s courses. So it just all went together. But it was an exciting place when I was first there. The jazz band there was pretty phenomenal. Cecil Bridgewater and Ron Dewar were doing a lot of really out, experimental stuff. Gradually it got conservative again, but they were really pushing the envelope. Harry Partch had been there in the ‘50s. Lot of recordings were from there. And Cage had been there a couple of times doing his circus pieces and HPSCHD. There was that kind of energy going on there. When I came back, it had subsided somewhat, but there were still people left over who were very influenced by that. And that’s what I was looking for.
FJO: So you were never in a classroom teaching music?
JS: I did student teaching, but barely. I didn’t know if I was going to end up teaching or not. I hadn’t gotten the playing out of my system and it just kept getting more in the system, the more I did it. So I got farther and farther away from considering teaching.
FJO: Well, I find it an interesting thing in your background considering the role you now have with Roulette as an advocate for so much music. By providing people a venue in which they can hear all this experimental music, you’re teaching people about sound and what sound can be and what the possibilities are for music. Do you see that connection at all?
JS: I don’t think of it that way really. I just think that creativity is a very valuable human thing in society. And Roulette’s always been about contributing to a healthy scene. So we support the work and the people who are doing it. I’m constantly re-evaluating how I think about that. I don’t necessarily like everything, but I try to see the value in what people are doing, open it up to a range of things that are going on and try and represent that as best as possible. Each year, it’s something new. New things come, and old things fall off. So it keeps changing over time.
FJO: When did you first become connected to Morgan Powell?
JS: I knew him at school; he was a professor there. Then one of the guys who played trombone in Berlin, Barry Ross, who was the lead trombone player in one of the radio bands, had gone to Berkeley and Morgan was his teacher. So he was talking about Morgan and telling me what a great trombone player he was. I knew him as a composer writing for jazz band. I was also hearing about Sal Martirano from outside; Barry Guy had talked about him. And Fulkerson had studied with him and also with Herbert Brün and Ben Johnston. So when I went back to school, I made a point of connecting with them. I went to see Morgan and said, “I’d like to take a work study thing with you or something.” And he said, “Why don’t you just come around and we’ll hang out.” So I came and brought stuff, and we talked about music. He had a choreographer composer class he was teaching. He asked me to come and be a part of that. So I got involved with dance, which I was interested in anyway because of stuff I’d seen Mary Fulkerson do in Berlin.
FJO: When you say you brought stuff, were you already composing music at that point?
JS: No, just recordings of music, Slide Hampton’s work and other things. And we’d talk about it.
FJO: In terms of understanding this divide between composing and performing, creating your own music versus playing music that somebody else has you play, what was the moment when that crystalized for you?
JS: I think when I was in Berlin and doing the Fulkerson stuff and started becoming interested in improv. I did try to do changes, but I wasn’t a change guy. I got up in the jazz gallery on the open nights and played. I came to the conclusion that changes weren’t for me. But I did become attracted to the idea of working with sound as a way to break me out of the conventional thinking of music. And also working with dance. It’s sort of the same thing. It took me out of that conventional way of how I thought about music.
FJO: One of the things that makes the trombone such an ideal vehicle for that kind of exploration is it’s so open ended. You can play any pitch on it because of the slide.
JS: It’s an amplifier of whatever you put into it. That’s really the essence of it. It amplifies whether you put a bassoon reed in your mouth or bass clarinet mouthpiece on it or sing through it or whatever. It’s just processing that through a particular kind of filter, and amplifying it. So it’s very flexible that way. And, of course, microtonally it’s completely flexible, and so it has a lot of options. It’s very similar to the human voice in a sense.
FJO: Did your own experimentation with the instrument start in Berlin?
JS: Yeah, but I got much more involved when I came back to the university. I was playing in just about every ensemble they had, maybe ten, sixteen hours a day, a little more than they would have liked. But I just wanted to get back into it. Gradually things fell off. More and more I got involved with doing my own work after a couple of years and playing in the orchestras and other things less.

A break during a 1979 gig at Chicago's N.A.M.E. Gallery (pictured fron left to right, back row): David Means, Jim Staley, John Fonville, David Weinstein, (and seated in front) Barbara Maloney and Dan Senn. Photol courtesy Jim Staley.

A break during a 1979 gig at Chicago’s N.A.M.E. Gallery (pictured fron left to right, back row): David Means, Jim Staley, John Fonville, David Weinstein, (and seated in front) Barbara Maloney and Dan Senn. Photol courtesy Jim Staley.

FJO: So you sort of had this informal, quasi-formal, not quite work-study relationship with Morgan. When did you officially become part of the Tone Road Ramblers? How did that happen?
JS: Well, we started it together. When I moved here, he asked about coming out and doing something. He had some people here that he wanted to work with—people like Jim McNeely and Ray Sasaki. He did a concert in my loft as part of that first spring season. Afterwards, John Fonville—I call him Jack—so Jack and Morgan and I went over across the street to the coffee shop. I’d been thinking about putting an ensemble together with Jack. And Morgan said, “I’d like to do something.” So we started brainstorming. He had some people he wanted involved. Michael Udow, Ray Sasaki and his brother Dave, and Jack. Yeah, I think that was it. It was two trombones, trumpet, clarinet, flutes, and percussion when we started.
FJO: But before you moved to New York, you were already playing with many of these people and you also said that stuff was starting to happen with groups that you were leading. So why do you pick up and come here?
JS: Well, I was on the GI bill, which back then was fantastic. I don’t have this student debt that all these poor people have now. Our generation didn’t have that, fortunately, and it made a big difference in giving us the freedom to pursue what we wanted to pursue. I had driven out in the summer of ‘77 to check out the West Coast because I loved San Francisco. And I’d gone to L.A. and there just wasn’t that much activity. There were some great people, but there wasn’t really that kind of intense [scene]. I was really looking for a critical mass of activity that went on like on campus at the University of Illinois—access to all the performers, and dance, and everything else on a professional level. L.A. was all studio stuff. People played stuff they wanted to on Monday nights because that’s when they didn’t have gigs. That’s why music concerts happened on Monday nights. That’s the night nobody had a gig. That wasn’t a scene I wanted to move to. Of course, New York was. It wasn’t going to be quite the enjoyable environment that maybe San Francisco was, but it had the same amount of artists creating and making their own work and they were actively working in a way that didn’t happen anywhere else in the country.
FJO: What I find so fascinating about New York in the ‘70s was it seemed back then that if something you wanted didn’t exist, if there was no scene that you could be a part of, you just made your own scene. In downtown Manhattan all this stuff started sprouting up. Philip Glass and Steve Reich starting their own ensembles. CBGBs became the mecca for the whole punk scene. Loft concerts downtown allowed jazz musicians to experiment in ways that the established clubs wouldn’t. Then there were all these alternative spaces where minimalism, jazz, punk, and other kinds of music intersected, like The Kitchen and, well, Roulette. I see this kind of thing happening now in Brooklyn, which is a scene you’re now a part of, but that energy is something that I think has very rarely been replicated in any place in any other time.
JS: Well, maybe it’s happening in Berlin, but they don’t have the support financially. In New York, there’s the financial industry which really is key to helping a scene work. In the ‘70s and into the early-‘80s, it was still affordable in Manhattan. When I got my loft, it was probably the last year you could find a loft like mine, for what I’m paying for it. All the activity, when I got to town, was all happening in lofts in TriBeCa and SoHo. The Kitchen was on Broome Street, and I went to so many performances. Dance and music performances were all happening in lofts. It gradually moved to the East Village and then spread around.
FJO: You lived in that loft.
JS: I still live in that loft.
FJO: It’s interesting how it went from being a place where you did your own concerts or concerts with the Tone Road Ramblers to a place that presented lots of other musicians.
JS: Well I thought, let me try to get people to come and see our things more by having other things in the loft, too. So we put together a little series. The first concert was supposed to be Ben Johnston, but he couldn’t come and had to cancel. So the first concert ended up being Malcolm Goldstein playing solo. Phill Niblock asked me to have him, because he didn’t want to have improv in his loft.
FJO: Really?
JS: Yeah, he wanted to keep it to composition work, so he suggested that Malcolm would be good at the thing I was putting together. And I’m sure it helped that Malcolm would bring people in and get them to know the space. That first concert opened the door. John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Phil Corner, and dozens of other composers –all kinds of people—came to see that concert. They loved the space and loved how it sounded and how it felt. We got something like 30 requests to do things there just after doing that. So we said, “O.K., this looks like a good thing. Let’s try and book everybody who wants to do something.” That next spring really turned into something. I think after we put the schedule together, Sal Martirano came out and was doing something on a Composers Forum concert at Cooper Union and asked if he could do something in the loft also. Anyway, it just took off.
FJO: Doing all that in your apartment probably didn’t jive well with the neighbors.
JS: Well, it was a loft building. They were all artists. Margaret Beals lived above me, and she was very cool. And Meredith Monk lived on the fifth floor, and a visual artist, Bob Smith, lived on the fourth floor. The top floor was Colleen McDonough, who’s at the ASCAP Foundation. Colleen’s roommate Anne Philbin, who’s now out in L.A. running a museum, had been at The Drawing Center. And Roma Baron, the producer for Laurie Anderson’s early stuff; she’s still in New York City working as a public defender and well as producing and recording projects. It was an artist building. So people did their work. And I didn’t push it too far. We tried to keep it really simple with everyone. I think that there were some loud things. John Zorn did some big game pieces where loud has to get louder at all times. David Linton came in and did things with his guitar where he’d amplified his drums to the point that the building shook, and that concert Margie objected to somewhat. But she got over it and was very supportive of what we were doing. She had her concerts, too. I ended up hanging a double sheetrock ceiling in that room to help mitigate the sound. Anyway, it worked. Concerts were at nine and they were usually over by eleven. So it was very workable, and that kind of thing went on in TriBeCa and SoHo.
FJO: How many nights a week?
JS: We ended up doing 60 concerts a year, sometimes up to 90. We had to keep it within the months that were not too cold or too hot. Usually we’d start in September and do the last concerts early in December, then come back in March and go ‘til the first part of May. So it allowed a lot of time for me to do my own work; I could keep up my activities as an improviser and trombonist. It was very balanced in that way.
FJO: Still, it was all happening in your apartment.
JS: And I ended up doing sound, so I was there for almost all of those concerts. But, yeah, there were times when every night for two weeks you had concerts, then you got a week off, then another two weeks [of concerts]. We’d do that three times in the fall, and three times in the spring. That’s what it was like. Then for the rest of the summer, I was off doing gigs.
FJO: But in terms of it being your home, let’s say something happens—you get sick with the flu or food poisoning—and you have a show scheduled, what happened?
JS: Well, it’s an L-shaped place. And I was doing this with David Weinstein. If something happened, he could take over and do things. We split it: he did box office; I did the sound. We’d switch. That happened the first few years and gradually we had other people involved. We’d bring on box office kids and get them paid 20 bucks or something. Over time I gradually got people to come in and do sound. Ben Manley, who’s [now] our tech director here, came in for a while with Dan Farkas and they would do sound for a bunch of the concerts. They learned how to do sound there back in the ‘80s. So people would come in, and I’d set up the sound and they’d come in and run the recording. It was a mix to stereo, simple back then, tape. Then we went to the PCM format, then DAT. Gradually we just went to computer.
FJO: Now in terms of the economics of running a space like this back then, it’s not like this could have ever been a big money maker. The space only held about 70 people. You mentioned bringing other people on and paying them. How did you keep it going?
JS: Well, the funding was a little easier. We got money from the Jerome Foundation early on and NYSCA. It was enough to start paying people a bit. And basically I’d had some inheritance. My father died the year that we started Roulette. So gradually I mostly invested that into equipment and the time to pursue that. And I did construction work—sheetrocking—on the side. I just got by, and gradually funding got better, enough to sustain us. You just piece it together and make it up as you go along.
FJO: It was a wonderful bubble while it lasted and it lasted for quite a long time, but then things changed. I remember going to a concert at the original Roulette, toward the end of its run in that space. A club had moved in downstairs and the music blasting from the club was louder than the concert.
JS: Yeah, in ’97. That was the beginning of the end. You know, some things were bad, some things were good. Alright, they were quiet certain nights, but it was a big problem. For years, it was just the luck of the draw. So many places had moved and shut down. The Loft Law, which came in 1982, sort of allowed us protection. We would have been long gone if that law hadn’t been passed. I think landlords expected that that law could get overturned, and so they kept stalling and not doing work, so the rent stayed frozen. When I moved in, it was six hundred bucks. After two years, it was raised to $700 and $800 and it got frozen. It was $800 a month from 1982 until the late ‘90s when finally they decided O.K., this law’s not going away. We’ve got to bring the buildings up to code and do work. Then they were allowed some substantial increases, but it still is rent stabilized. So now it’s relatively low for the amount of space and for TriBeCa, where rents are going for $20,000 to $30,000 a month for places. But that’s the nature of people staying in one place. There are people in the East Village still paying $400 bucks or less, you know. Zorn bought his place for very little. He was paying $40 dollars a month. But that was then. The housing situation in New York now really needs to be addressed.
FJO: What’s happened is that it has become almost impossible for a scene like the scene that you helped create in the late ‘70s to happen in Manhattan anymore.
JS: It couldn’t. About the time we started looking for this place in 2009, ’10, it was clear that the critical mass of activity had moved here to Brooklyn. Anything in terms of involving creative artists, if you didn’t have an institutional place, or a fixed, long-term lease, was impossible. Our situation was that when the building got its certificate of occupancy, the rules changed so that I could not present other people’s work anymore. I could present my own, but I couldn’t present other people in my space. At least that’s what the interpretation is. But it was fine. It was time to move out. We’d really grown to the point where it was a blessing in disguise that we got pushed to that.

Audience in gallery space with beams

A view of the audience at a Roulette performance in the Location One space in SoHo. Photo by Terri Hanlon, courtesy Jim Staley.

So we moved it around, and we finally settled on this gallery space on Greene Street in SoHo. Claire Montgomery showed me this space. It wasn’t really right for us for a permanent home, but she developed this space, so we went in and did some things, renting the space for two weeks at a time, pulling everything in and pulling everything out. That went on for two or three years. Then she didn’t really need that extra space or didn’t want to program the space and felt like they needed steady income there to cover the mortgage costs. But she wanted to keep hold of it at least a quarter of the time. So we took it three-quarters of the time. At that point there was air conditioning, so it could be year-round space and we just started presenting year round. The organization really jumped in terms of size. It was a street level space. It had its problems, but it was a great step for us. We had a three-year lease with an extra two-year option and we expected to renew it. But then the crisis came, and it caused pressure with the owner; he didn’t feel that he could promise to extend our stay there.
So we started looking around, and I stumbled upon this place. We worked with the Y [Y.W.C.A.]; there was a nine-month negotiation on the lease, but it worked out. You know, it is probably the best location we could be in. I walked in, and something I had felt about my loft is the way I felt about this. I walked in and immediately it just felt right. It had such a great feeling to it; you just wanted to stay. And this is what the scene has really needed. It needed a facility that could allow for Braxton to do his opera and all these other things that we couldn’t even hope to do in a gallery space—the dance works, the multi-media things. People have the room for a large audience or just to have a fantastic sounding space that’s well-equipped. We got a lot of help along the way to make this work.
FJO: It’s quite a transformation. It began in your own walk-up apartment, then concerts took place in an art gallery—both of these kinds of spaces were very much in keeping with the DIY ethos of the Downtown scene. But now it’s a bonafide venue.
JS: I’ve always felt this work really deserved to have a venue like this. It had outgrown the loft. It really needed a space that was a legitimate space. It worked with Greene Street. It was big enough. People could get there easily. But there were pillars in the way, and it was restrictive—it just wasn’t the full experience that people could have with the work. This space is very much like my loft in a sense. It’s just on a bigger scale. You’re intimate with the work—you can hear people thinking. And it sounds great and you can see everything.
FJO: There’s also a proscenium here, which establishes a certain kind of relationship between the performers and the audience—there are diverging opinions about that being optimal nowadays.

The stage of Roulette photographed from the balcony

A view of the stage of the current Roulette. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.

JS: Well, the stage used to be too high, so I’ve lowered it and stuck it out. It’s moveable, too. A lot of times people want to do things on the floor and be on the ground, if they want that intimacy. It can work a lot of different ways for people. It’s very flexible. That’s important. That goes back to that whole loft experience. Early SoHo, the Judson Church, all that stuff was about flexible spaces and non-fixed seating that could be used in whatever way the artist, composer, or performer needed it to be set up.
FJO: So one thing that I find amazing is they changed the laws on you so that it was O.K. to present your own work, but not O.K. to present other people, yet it was perfectly O.K. for a club to blast loud music that clearly wasn’t theirs to the point that it was drowning out some of your concerts. I remember being at a Christian Wolff concert that you had there, and the music from the club completely drowned it out since his music was really quiet. It was tragic.
JS: It was heart breaking what happened on some of those evenings. In the past, there had been a plumbing store. They went out at five. You could record in there, it was so quiet downtown. And a lot of recordings were done in there. It was a great space. Unless the fire department needed to go put out a fire, it was incredibly quiet down in TriBeCa in the ‘80s up until the mid-‘90s. It was ’97 when those guys moved in. And it really changed everything.
FJO: What I love about this new space is that it forever buries this idea that you can’t have a space that’s devoted to experimental music and sustain it. You’ve proven this music can have a significant venue. But I have to confess, and maybe it’s the lifelong Manhattanite in me talking, I remember initially feeling a little sad when I learned about the move. But it’s not just because of a selfish reason like it takes longer to get here for me personally. There had been a vital Downtown scene that had spawned so much amazing music. Roulette leaving, which happened around the same time that ISSUE Project Room also left Manhattan and moved to Brooklyn, felt like a death knell to Downtown music. But of course, the ethos is now something else and the scene here is very vibrant.
JS: Well yeah, it’s evolved. There’s a lot of creative activity going on. But these times are very different. The ‘60s and ‘70s were very mind expanding—you know, let’s try whatever. These days are about all the incredible challenges the world faces with climate change and the terrorism of the Middle East and the Tea Party, all of that stuff. I think it causes people to pull in. That was something I realized from my Army experience. When I was in San Francisco, all the people in that band were very radical. You’d get on a bus to go to a gig, and a third of the bus were Communists, a third were Anarchists, and they were always arguing with each other over political philosophy. We didn’t get a lot of military push back on us. We had to live within the lines, but there was a lot of freedom. There was stuff to go and do, and they left us alone. But when I went to Berlin, it was a very oppressive scene. Musicians—the non-lifers and even lifers—were much more conservative politically. But their way of doing things was much more radical. They broke out and screwed up the music, pushing back against the authority there. So it was interesting. Even though they were so much more radical in their actions, they were much more conservative in their political philosophy.
FJO: There is still some pretty radical music being made nowadays, though.
JS: We had a recent benefit that featured all artists who were under 40. There was such a range of things. Everybody seemed so reassured and excited that there was that much really interesting, creative work going on among young composers, that it was still going on and was interesting. They didn’t just have to go to a Christian Wolff concert to hear interesting work. But there’s a really different set of concerns, obviously, because it’s a different generation and the world has changed. In some ways, [the younger generation] may be more conservative in dealing with instrumentation and tonality. They’re dealing with the harmonic system more than you would have ever expected from the ‘60s and ‘70s; it was taboo in those days.
FJO: Well, one thing that has shifted fundamentally I think is attitudes about audiences. Once upon a time, it was assumed that really experimental concerts—whether Uptown or Downtown—would attract a small devoted coterie. Going to such a concert felt like being in on some incredible secret or like being part of chosen group—ultimately, almost everyone in those audiences knew one another. But now the secret is out. Few things have made me feel more euphoric about the ability for really experimental music to attract a broader audience than the re-creation of Cage’s Musicircus you presented here before the official opening of this space. Tons of people showed up for it. It was amazing.
JS: Yeah, it was a great happening.
FJO: It was a very different thing than just playing for the initiated. People came inside from the street because something really unusual was happening here; a whole potential new audience for experimental music was drawn to this event.
JS: Well, that certainly is the task. That’s something we’re always working for. We certainly have concerts where a dozen to twenty people show up, things that a lot more people should see. Jaap Blonk did an incredible concert here, but there weren’t so many people. He’s not well-known enough here. Our constant work is to expand our audience base, trying to get people to go to things that they don’t know about. We have some successes with that, but it’s something you really need to do a lot more of. That’s clearly the thing. That’s a lifelong task. We’ve been doing it since we opened our doors. We’re still working on that.
FJO: But it’s great that you are still committed to artists who don’t necessarily sell out the house automatically, that you are willing to take risks and you are offering audiences programs that they should take a chance with. So in terms of taking chances and taking risks, is that the reason for the name Roulette?
JS: Weinstein had that name. It was part of a Dadaist piece he did called Café Roulette. Dan Senn had been working on something with raku pottery, and we were kicking around all that stuff. Cage was very important at that time. We settled on something that was more secular, something that was a little more colorful than chance music for the people—for the gamblers in the society. It seemed like a good name to work with when you’re sitting around in a room and trying to come up with a name for the organization.
FJO: But it’s interesting that it wasn’t your name, because one of the things I find so compelling about your own musical projects are the titles that you give to things, like the series of trio performances that you released under the name Mumbo Jumbo. It’s wonderfully evocative. It instantly connotes language, communication between people, and it also connotes incomprehensibility, but in a humorous way.
JS: It was really about different conversations. I see improvisation as conversation in a sense, or counterpoint. It can go all different kinds of ways. You can be talking past each other, screaming at each other, or really interacting closely—a whole range of things are possible and interesting. Zorn had done his Locus Solus which is a really different kind of thing. It really was different groupings of people. And I thought, “Well, I want to do that.” And I found that I had different relationships with different people. My trio with Shelley Hirsch and Sam Bennett was sort of a vaudeville act with each person trying to pull the other guy and get in front of them. It was kind of aggressive. Whereas with Ikue Mori and Bill Frisell, you had to be careful you didn’t step on somebody because it was much more about just being respectful and letting everybody have the right space to do what they’re doing and appreciate that, rather than getting your word out in front of the other guy, who was always getting in front of you. It was really a different kind of dynamic with each of the different groups. That was interesting to me and fun.

Staley playing trombone with Ikue Mori on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar

Jim Staley in performance with Ikue Mori on drums and Bill Frisell on guitar at the Roulette’s original West Broadway venue in 1988. Photo by Barbara Mensch, courtesy Roulette.

FJO: It’s fascinating that you say that about those two particular trio configurations, because in the performances with Shelley Hirsch, you are singing into the trombone. You’re really responding to her extended vocals which take the voice far beyond singing; the trombone really becomes an ancillary voice. Whereas when you were playing with Frisell, I feel you took him to a more avant-garde place than he would typically go on his own. His sound world is all about distortion and feedback, and bending notes, but I feel that you were pushing him even further with the extended techniques you were exploring on the trombone, whereas it seemed to me that with Shelly Hirsch, she was pushing you to a new place.
JS: Well, I think we were all going around. I remember Bill at the end of something looking at me and saying, “I think it’s good.” That was his reaction to what was going on. The funny thing with the Zorn and [Fred] Frith trio was that up until that point all the things I did with Zorn had been with game calls. We did a lot of gigs together. I did an early record with him, and I felt a real affinity with him. And with Frith, he was always doing the table stuff [table-top guitars]. Well, our gig happened the day after John had done The Big Gundown for two days at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. So we show up at the studio, and separately Fred decides he’s going to bring his guitar and John decides he’s going to bring his sax. So it was a completely different kind of thing than I’d expected to happen with them.
FJO: It’s actually strangely the most conventional of all the trios on that disc. It’s almost like extended hard bop.
JS: Yeah. I played a duo gig with John once and before we started, I said, “Let’s just stay away from playing jazz.” First thing he did is go into total jazz licks. You know, you can’t tell him anything. So that was a good lesson.

Shelley Hirsch singing into microphone.

Shelley Hirsch in performance at the original West Broadway location of Roulette. Photo courtesy Roulette.

FJO: Ha! Getting back to your titles, I have to admit I’m a little bit baffled by your use of the name Don Giovanni for another one of your improv projects. Is there something I’m missing?
JS: I was looking for a title and Weinstein was always great with bizarre titles. He was listening to it, and he said just call it “Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni.” I thought, “Well, that’s a little strange.” But then I listened to it and started following as things happened, the relationship between the different movements, or parts of it, happened to line up with some of the things, like the double trio; it seemed to line up with the structure. Obviously it wasn’t intentional. It was completely non-narrative. You know, we’re going in here and we’re totally improvising with whatever happens here with these different groupings. There’s still an emotional dynamic that happens between people and where they are in the studio. It just happens, especially in improv. It’s not necessarily expression; it just comes out. There are such quick choices that happen and become somewhat emotional on a level that you don’t even know you’re connecting with people, and stuff is going back and forth. You don’t know the connections are made until you listen later. That happens in improv all the time. So it’s not something you’re choosing. It something that’s sort of happening; you’re making choices all the time, but they’re not entirely completely thought-out choices. They’re coming out of a lot of places. I spent months going through it. I worked with Fred Frith producing; we worked together on it. When we were in the studio, he’d pipe in Iggy Pop to somebody and it changed the whole dynamic of things. And I did some stuff where there were ghost tracks where people were all listening to the same thing, but didn’t hear each other’s improv; it was just put on top of each other against a common thing. But when I listened back to it, it seemed to have a narrative in spite of itself. So I just sort of imposed that on it. It wasn’t something that was created with it. It just came out of it.
FJO: So there’s no Mozart in it?
JS: No.
FJO: Interesting. I don’t know if you guys did this intentionally as a joke, or if it’s somebody’s glitch somewhere, but there’s some meta-tagging of files digitally online that gives the composer as Mozart for all the tracks.
JS: Really?
FJO: You didn’t know that?
JS: No! That must have been done with Virtual Ableton.
FJO: To get back to what you were saying about improvisation as conversation earlier, it seems like you really feed off of collaboration. That seems to be key to most of your work.
JS: Yeah. I much prefer as an improviser playing with people than doing solo. Solo is very hard to do. I can do short periods, but a whole evening is really rough. I really prefer working with people. And it also changes what I do. I’ll come up with different solutions or go different places if I’m working with different people. I certainly discover stuff in the middle of improvising based on what’s going on that I’d never done before.
FJO: And it also gives you the ability to influence somebody else. I’m thinking of a duo concert you did with Sylvie Courvoisier where both of you are going to places that I’ve never heard either of you go to at any other time. Also a performance you did with Zeena Parkins.
JS: Yeah, that was fun. Zeena came out wrapped in cellophane on one of them with a microphone. That’s how she began the thing.

Borah Bergman on piano and Jim Staley on trombone

Staley in a duet performance with pianist Borah Bergman at the Greene Street venue. Photo courtesy Jim Staley.

FJO: But I also think you’ve done some amazing solo performances.
JS: But it can’t be all evening. I mean, we’re used to violin or piano being a full evening concert by itself.
FJO: Well, violin alone is not all that common. There are people who do that, like Malcolm Goldstein who was your very first guest artist at Roulette, but it’s unusual. Solo trombone happens even less frequently, but it can be done.
JS: Yeah, for 20 or 30 minutes. I think people can sit through that.
FJO: So maintaining the balance between running Roulette and doing your own music—
JS: —Well, I have to say, it’s not balanced now. I mean, this [move to the new space] took over my life. I oversaw the renovation. There were concerts going on at Greene Street still in 2010/11, but it was a lot thinner. Our whole effort was managing this renovation project. I had a great architect that helped make it happen and great contractors. And of course my board is fantastic. They really stepped up financially and with business sensibilities and other things that have just made it possible. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But it took over my life. I’ve hardly played much. I go out with the Ramblers and I do a solo thing here and there, but my head hasn’t been there.
I’ve been focused on managing this—the budget went from $500,000 or so on Greene Street to $1.3 million in a year and a half, a big jump to pull off and, of course, it is much bigger place—and finding the right programming. Programming has to change for what comes here. There are so many groups in the community that use this place—the World Music Institute, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the Brooklyn Philharmonic when it exists does things here, and other people. It’s not somebody who’s doing their first raw experiments. I think this facility is now for things that are developed a little bit. I still want to focus on experimental composers, people like Peter Evans and Jen Shyu and Tristan Perich, all these other fantastic young composers. Nate Wooley just did a fantastic concert and Kris Davis did a great concert here earlier this year. Gabrielle Herbst did an opera thing. Her instrumental writing is fantastic. It’s an opportunity to have a venue for that, and hopefully support for that, but those other things now have to go to other DIY spaces. This is somewhere they can grow to, where that work can grow to. Before you had to wait until you got big enough that maybe BAM would pay attention to you or Lincoln Center or maybe Merkin Hall or Miller Theatre, which is a once-every-five-years kind of event, if you’re lucky.
And now it’s back to bigger projects. Early in the ‘60s, people went out and certainly did bigger projects. They’d do them in Judson Church or outside or in some alternative space. Back in the’60s, everything was sort of on the edge of falling apart, so they could get into a hall and do a project. Those kinds of spaces aren’t so available anymore for people to just come up with something new. And also, like I said, the work has changed. When we started out, dance could be in my loft because everybody’s thinking was more minimalist. At some point I thought they were just bouncing off the walls and it just didn’t work. They needed bigger spaces for what they did.
FJO: You really have continued to pay attention to the whole continuum of adventurous music in all three spaces over the course of these 35 years. One thing we didn’t really speak about yet, and this continues what you were saying about growing audiences, is what you’ve been doing online with Roulette TV.
JS: It’s something I thought of a couple years ago. I went and applied and we got money through [former Brooklyn Borough President] Marty Markowitz. And finally, winding its way through the city capital budget, is a whole multi-camera robotics control set up that we have downstairs. I wanted to be able to do live video streaming of some of the events that we choose, or even where we’re going to make a separate special production for Roulette TV. It’s like TV, which is already an old concept. This is really much more trying to have a virtual performance space that—in conjunction with this performance space—hopefully will draw a larger audience for live stuff. Some of this music is just as moving if you just listen to it, but much of it you’ve got to see to really understand it. It doesn’t translate just through CDs, or just through audio.
It also really opens the possibility of having an artist come in and produce something that we just put out there over the internet. There are a lot of ideas we’re kicking around. But the idea is basically to expand the audience, to try to bring more people into the work, and open it up to the world. Anybody who has access to an internet connection can see this work, and I think it’s already happening.
FJO: So do you think by making this music available to people online that the kind of music you’ve been presenting at Roulette has a chance of becoming much more popular?
JS: People have different tastes. People that love Rachmaninoff may still love this, and they may not. Somebody might think it’s totally idiotic, but I’m sure it would inform something and come back in memory in some other way. Things have a ripple effect. I think there will be people that are drawn to it the more people have access to it. People that don’t have the means to come to New York to see this will be able to see it. And it will influence work in other parts of the world. Creative thought is a good thing for society; I think it has a positive impact in the end.

Brooklyn street outside Roulette

A view of the exterior of the current Roulette space at 509 Atlantic Avenue. Photo by Doron Sadja, courtesy Roulette.

Upheavals in Grantland

Ed. Note: Since this piece offers direct commentary on New Music USA, the organization which brings you NewMusicBox, we thought it was important to clearly reiterate that connection and note that articles and commentary posted on NewMusicBox reflect the viewpoint of their individual authors. Their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply official endorsement by New Music USA.

As much as I’d like to follow up on some of the comments from last week’s cheeseburger article, there are more momentous events afoot. I’m quite sure there will be time to revisit terms such as “pandering” and “entertainment” as they relate to new music in the future. For now, I would like to point you to a related, engaging, and quite epic Facebook thread started by composer and hornist Matt Marks after he made the simple statement “Composers: ‘I’m pretty sure all these paying concert-goers came here to hear me express myself, not to be entertained.'”

This week, however, I’d like to consider a different issue altogether. Recently there have been several major shifts in “umbrella” organizations that oversee grant opportunities for composers, performers, and presenters, both here in the United States and in the United Kingdom. In November of 2011, New Music USA was formed by the merger of the American Music Center and Meet The Composer, a reorganization effort that maintained both the grant opportunities and the promotional support offered to composers, performers, and presenters through media outlets such as NewMusicBox. In addition, the American Composers Forum absorbed the American Music Center’s membership and now solely administers the various membership benefits that had previously been offered by both, e g. maintaining opportunity updates and coordinating professional development workshops. The moves seemed positive, with a reduction in redundancy between the three organizations and a push toward improving the labyrinthine network of commissioning and funding opportunities across the country.

A similar move had occurred in 2008 in the U.K. with the merging of four organizations—the Society for the Promotion of New Music, the British Music Information Centre, Contemporary Music Network, and Sonic Arts Network—into a new umbrella organization called Sound and Music (or SAM) in order to focus their efforts and streamline the support process for composers in that country. In March of 2012, however, there was more than a little controversy around how SAM was using the £1.2 million given to them by Arts Council England; this controversy was stoked by an open letter with more than 250 signatories (including most of the major British composers) which pointed to many of the problems within the system at the time.
Over the past two weeks there have been two major announcements that look to significantly change the funding landscape for new music both here and in the U.K.

On April 30, Sound and Music announced an enormous reboot to how they support and promote new music. Several new programs (with descriptions from the SAM website) include:

Higher Education Program—a development program for exceptionally talented composers in higher education.
Portfolio—a recently launched development program for 14 emerging composers per year to create new work with and for some of the U.K.’s leading ensembles and presenters of new music.
Composer-Curator Program—a national program of light touch support for composers who program and curate new music events and festivals.
Museum Partner Program—a program engaging museums and heritage organizations in working with composers in new ways.
Audience Development Program—a program of action research into how new music can transform its approach to building and sustaining audiences, with pilot activity with partners in Birmingham, Bristol, London, and the Northeast of England.

SAM will also be continuing and improving several other programs, including an “Adopt a Composer” program, an “Embedded” residency program, and a “Summer School” program for pre-college composers, among many other worthwhile projects. Early reactions seem to hew to Tom Service’s positive comments on the changes:

Time, then, for peace to break out, and for everyone to get behind the new-model SAM, as everyone involved tonight will be hoping. Now surely, is the best chance for SAM to become what it always should have been, the go-to organisation to support composers in whatever field they’re working—and if that doesn’t happen now or in the near future, it arguably never will.

Just one week after SAM made their changes known, New Music USA made a similarly groundbreaking announcement on May 6. Beginning this fall, what were previously five separate funding opportunities—Creative Connections, Commissioning Music USA, the Composer Assistance Program, CAP Recording, and Live Music For Dance—will all be conflated into a one-stop-granting experience for applicants, with a deadline in the fall and a deadline in the spring. Once winners are announced, the strength of New Music USA’s media-rich web presence will be used to promote the projects.

This “One Grant Program to Rule Them All” approach is way past due. I served on a Creative Connections selection panel a few years ago, and I can attest to the myriad projects that such awards can support, but as an applicant I can also attest to the confusion surrounding which grant works best with which project and the frustration of keeping track of the many deadlines. I hope that by condensing the five awards into one process, not only will applicants have an easier time of it, but that this will encourage more applicants around the country to apply and that the awards are distributed accordingly to as wide a swath of creators and performers as possible.

Both announcements seem to bode well for the future of new music funding both here in the U.S. and in the U.K. I would hope that New Music USA is keeping their eye on those many projects and programs that Sound and Music has created, as quite a few of them have no analogues here in the States. From a personal standpoint, as my career grows and artists and ensembles commission my music, I am hopeful that these changes in grantland will assist me and my colleagues in our music-making for many years to come.

More Advocates

In last week’s post I mentioned a few venues, extant and defunct, that exemplify some ways that musicians have advocated for their colleagues. Chez Hanny, Small’s, Puppet’s, Konceptions at Korzo, Zeb’s, Perez Jazz, The Stone, The Reunion, Somethin’ Jazz, and Keystone Korner were the ones included. (Connie Crothers’s living room concerts and The Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society were also featured but, as far as I know, the former isn’t a regular series and the later isn’t run by a musician.) Of course, there are many, many other venues that were left out of the discussion. I’d like to add a few more names to this list. Some of them I’ve written about in past posts and some are new:

The Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis. Originally called The Place to Start, this spacious establishment was opened by Naptown promoter Fernie King in the mid 1980s, but went out of business in 1991. Trumpeter David Allee reopened it a year later. For years his father, pianist-composer Steve Allee, was featured with his big band on Sunday nights. Now the club is dark on that night, but tomorrow (April 6) the club will host the band’s 19th anniversary concert. The Jazz Kitchen boasts an impressive menu that features half-pound burgers which, for reasons I can’t begin to imagine, are not available when national acts are performing.
The Blue Wisp in Cincinnati. The Wisp was opened in 1973 by Paul Wisby, an employee of General Motors who was forced into an early “retirement” because of a disability. Wisby passed away in 1984 and his widow, Marjean, took over the club and ran it until she died in 2006. It looked like the club’s incarnation as the premier jazz venue in the “Okiana Triangle” (an area marked by Indianapolis in the north, Cincinnati in the east and Louisville in the south that includes the shared borders of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana) was in danger due to back taxes and unpaid bills, but bassist-lawyer Ed Felson took up the task of keeping the doors open and the stage booked. Like the Jazz Kitchen, the Blue Wisp offers an eclectic assortment of “upscale bar food.”
The Jazz Standard in New York City is one of the premier live music venues that—even though it is part of the Danny Meyer restaurant empire–is actually run by jazz musicians. I’ve heard that the club was inspired by a relative of Meyer’s who plays the drums. The sound is very good and the equipment on-stage is well maintained. The menu leans heavily into barbecue.
The Pizza Place in Yonkers is run by a Berklee College of Music graduate Ron Masciandaro. The room’s acoustics leave something to be desired, but it’s located within a hundred feet of the Metro North station and, although it is a pizzeria, the food is really very good.

Savannah Jazz in San Francisco is owned by guitarist Pascal Bokar and features live jazz Wednesday through Sunday. It’s a very spacious room with an elevated stage. In the past, the club featured a who’s who of Bay Area jazz instrumentalists. Lately, however, the rotating part of the club’s schedule features mostly vocalists while the regularly featured acts are a weekly jam session (Thursday) and a “Swing Party” (Wednesday) that includes dance lessons beforehand.

These “mainstream” establishments are for-profit operations and, while they represent examples of artist-to-artist advocacy, their bottom line is about filling seats and selling food and/or booze to a paying audience. This kind of artist-based advocacy follows a long tradition of entrepreneurially minded musicians forming their own businesses to present work by artists they believe worthy of wider recognition, which often includes themselves. Small’s, Konceptions at Korzo, and Somethin’ Jazz are extant examples of this model. Chez Hanny, Zeb’s, Perez Jazz, and Connie Crothers’s living room concerts nuance their advocacy by removing the need to engage their clientele in repast and libation for profit, although repast and libation is available as part of admission.
John Zorn’s performance space, The Stone, presents another approach to artist-based advocacy where a close-knit or highly select collective of artists manage a common presenting concern for the musicians they advocate for. Based loosely on the raw space model of The Kitchen, The Stone offers a raw space with the basics for music presentation (sound amplification, a piano, etc.) that can be configured according to the artists’ tastes and/or needs.

Probably the most visible success story of the collective-based performance space is Roulette, which moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn last year. Its 7,000 unfurnished square feet of includes a stage suitable for theatrical productions and a mezzanine. Its advocacy now extends beyond the marginalized. Last year’s Vision Festival was hosted there and a celebration of Yusef Lateef’s 75th year as a professional musician will be celebrated there tomorrow.

Brooklyn is also home to the Douglass Street Music Collective, a tight-knit group of artists who manage a humble space near the Gowanus Canal. Their booking policy differs from The Stone’s curatorial method in that only members can use the space. But non-members can pitch projects to the collective’s roster, which can be found on their website.

Not quite a collective, but also not quite a club, is Brooklyn’s ShapeShifter Lab. Founded by bassist Matthew Garrison (the son of John Coltrane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison) and his partner Fortuna Sung, ShapeShifter’s raw space measures 4,200 square feet and includes an extensive backline that can accommodate just about any performance group. The seating includes tables where one can bring drinks and snacks purchased in the venue’s bar area. Probably the most interesting aspect of ShapeShifter’s presentation, and one that places it firmly on the cutting edge, is the option of having your performance broadcast on their internet stream (something Small’s Jazz Club offers as well).

Another performance venue, the Yippie Café in Manhattan, also offers live internet feeds, although its performance spaces are much smaller and constantly under development. The management’s political views are non-mainstream and obvious. The management at Yippie considers the venue to be a place for political activism and prides its connections to proponents of the 1960s movement from which its name is derived. Jazz has been a focal point for politically inspired advocacy from James Reese Europe’s Clef Club to producer John Hammond’s work for the American Socialist Party to the Philadelphia Clef Club, so it is fitting that the Yippie Café includes jazz as part of its weekly schedule.

The website for ABC No Rio describes the establishment as “a collectively-run center for art and activism.” Founded in 1980 on New York City’s Lower East Side, ABC No Rio is a base for art projects that are cross-/multi-disciplinary as well as cross-/multi-cultural in scope. Its origin is The Real Estate Show, an attempt by a group of marginalized artists to homestead an abandoned city-owned office building for use as a gallery and performance space after an unsuccessful year-long campaign to rent the space. Woodwind player Blaise Siwula books the COMA (for Citizen’s Ontological Music Agenda) series there Sundays, which traditionally includes two sets of featured artists followed by an open jam session. Another space, the Jazz Gallery, has been seminal in the careers of emerging artists like Jason Moran for over a decade.

I know this list of venues dedicated to artist-based advocacy is nowhere near extensive and I hope that readers might feel inspired to include additional names and locations in the comments section of this week’s post. While such venues and collectives might seem trivial to today’s “mainstream,” their future impact on American music is guaranteed and, therefore, vital to it.

Parlor Advocates

First, I’ll explain my prolonged absence from NewMusicBox. A medical emergency required that I temporarily relocate to San Francisco to act as my mother’s medical power of attorney. Fortunately, she’s doing better and should be home by May. With that said, it’s good to be back home in New York City! Please understand, I have nothing against San Francisco, but acting as an advocate for a sick parent can be like working two full-time jobs: one dealing with the infirmity and medical issues, and the other with the home life that might otherwise go ignored (mail, bills, pets, etc.). I only had the opportunity to hear music on three days out of five weeks. But, before the reader labels me a “devoted son” (which always conjures in my mind the image of Dick Shawn in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), I have to say that, besides getting to hang out together in a way that we haven’t since years before I reached the age of majority, acting as my mother’s advocate was an opportunity to return, in a very small way, the times she did so on my behalf.

Many parents aren’t exactly thrilled to know that their offspring, the representatives of their hopes and beliefs for the future of our species, have made up their minds to pursue careers that, usually, barely (if at all) can pay for the meanest necessities of life. This was certainly the case with my parents. When I made the announcement one weekend morning that I had decided to become a professional musician when I grew up, my father groaned and my mother sighed. I’m sure they both hoped that it was a phase, like when I wanted to be a secret agent or, later, when I thought I could be a great butler. But when it became clear that I wasn’t moving onto something else, like policeman, fireman, or dogcatcher, they both got behind my decision and advocated for me.
One example of my mother going to bat for me was when my best friend, Roger, and I were denied entry to the sophomore level music classes offered by our high school. Because he and I had already been playing professionally for several years and had been doing very well in our music classes, our parents wanted to know why we had been rejected by the music instructor and scheduled a meeting with him, us, and the school’s dean of boys. I’ll never forget that meeting. We assembled in the dean’s office with the music instructor seated to the left of the dean’s desk. My friend’s father was in his business suit and his mother in her Sunday best. My mom was in between jobs as a draftsman and a specialist for several Federal agencies, but arrived in business attire. Roger and I stood. The teacher explained that, in his opinion, we were not serious about music. Never mind that we were working, studying, and dedicating just about every moment we had to the subject; that I had been playing in the S.F. All-City Honor Orchestra (often as principal bass) and the San Francisco Conservatory Orchestra for four years; that Roger and I had formed a group that was playing professionally around the city in addition to our other professional work; and that we were composing music as well. He felt we just weren’t really into music enough. His supporting evidence was that during lunch hours, Roger and I had taken up the habit of going into a practice room to work on our improvisation and would play jazz! He was of the opinion that jazz (and rock and funk and etc.) wasn’t serious music. This wasn’t at all an uncommon opinion in 1968, the year this occurred, even though it was one that was losing ground as student protests around the world were focusing on the lack of multicultural curricula in universities and public schools (as well as social issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights).

Without going into too much detail as to how the rest of the meeting went, Roger and I were accepted into the music courses and, at the beginning of the next semester, our high school had a new music director, a working musician with a strong knowledge of American music styles. It was a shame because the instructor who denied us tutelage was a very good theorist who wrote excellent arrangements for the school’s concert band, including one of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (no other arrangement of this movement existed at the time). One of the things that I was particularly looking forward to in my sophomore year was studying harmony with him. It crushed me that, with our new music teacher, harmony classes were suspended. Still, our parent’s advocacy gave me permission to follow my muse and build a career out of what many consider a hobby.

When it comes down to it, though, we all exist as part and parcel of our advocacy networks. The canon of Western culture exists because of the advocacy of those who take it upon themselves to define and promote it. Impresarios, record companies, scholars, teachers, musicians, and fans all advocate for the artists and works that represent their musical ideals. Bob Theile advocated for John Coltrane by recording anything Coltrane brought into the studio, including the music of artists that he advocated for, such as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Record producer Teo Macero advocated for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in ways that could be considered more “hands-on,” like pretending to be Davis on the telephone in order to jack up a performance fee. In the case of Macero, he worked for a recording company that he also advocated for, Columbia Records, while Thiele, with Creed Taylor, ran the Impulse! label during the 1960s. It’s interesting to note that Theile’s magnum opus, A Love Supreme by Coltrane, and Macero’s, Kind of Blue by Davis, are among the 100 American musical works advocated for by NPR as the 20th century’s most important.

Since I think that, of Coltrane’s output, the album Giant Steps—because of its title track—is much more important to American music than A Love Supreme and of Davis’s work, the album Bitches Brew is also, arguably, more significant than NPR’s choice of Kind of Blue, it is clear that advocacy relies in no small part on the aesthetic and philosophical outlook of the advocate. NPR’s explanation for their choices include Davis’s purported cultivation of “creative instability by rolling tape [during] his ensemble’s first takes and refusing to rehearse” (disingenuous for the reason that the takes used were the first complete takes and that the band rehearsed before and during the incomplete takes) and that Coltrane’s four-movement concept album was “a soul-searching attempt to express his faith in God through music following a long battle with drug and alcohol abuse.” (It was actually the poem that Coltrane very likely wrote while on LSD that expresses his faith. The music on the album was part of a new direction he was taking his music in general, which is documented in the posthumously released LP, Sun Ship, recorded six months later.) But I believe that the tune “Giant Steps” introduced a set of chord changes that has become a standard for jazz improvisation (as well as a specific tool for reharmonization) and that Bitches Brew was the official break for Davis from acoustic jazz to experimental jazz-rock fusion music that marks an aesthetic chasm that is a salient feature of America’s musical landscape. We clearly advocate for different reasons.

Advocacy can be a two-way street and those being advocated will often advocate for their advocates as well. (And, of course, almost everyone advocates for themselves!) In the case of institutions, such as NPR, Columbia, and Impulse!, the underlying reason is to present a prolific artist who will produce a surplus of sellable products. This is in contrast to a parent’s standing up for their children’s self-expression, where the reason is to promote a happy and healthy family. But there is a kind of advocacy that has an altruistic underpinning and I would like to spend the rest of this post talking about it. I’m thinking of when a musician, or group of musicians, takes on the role of presenting artists in situations where they might not be heard elsewhere. Several have been mentioned in my posts before: Spike Wilner and Mitchell Borden of Small’s Jazz Club in New York or Tony Lewis at the now-defunct Reunion Club in San Francisco. There’s also James Carney of the Konceptions at Korzo series, Jamie Affoumado of the now-defunct Puppet’s Jazz Club (both in Brooklyn), Somethin’ Jazz Club (run by a family of musicians) and The Stone (founded by John Zorn with concert series curated by musicians) in Manhattan. Even Keystone Korner of San Francisco was run by musicians to encourage high quality jazz in an environment where music wasn’t incidental to dining or drinking.
Even more germane to the idea of a “music first” kind of advocacy are the concert series that musicians present in their homes. When I’m in San Francisco, I usually perform at one, Chez Hanny. Frank Hanny is a bass player and technology maven who, once a month, presents a concert in his home. For the first twenty years that he did this, the concerts were held in his living room, but after relocating to the city’s Excelsior district, they now take place in what was once an entertainment room and is now called the “manly room.” I’ll be appearing there in July in a tribute to bassist Chuck Metcalf.

There are two such venues in New York I’d like to mention that cater to vocalists. One, Perez Jazz, is run by vocalist Diana Perez at her apartment in Brooklyn. I was there on March 24 to hear the Australian-born singer, Anita Wardell. The Perez Jazz series features duo concerts and Wardell was accompanied by guitarist Ed Cherry. While Wardell is not an unknown quantity in the jazz community, the duo setting in such an intimate venue made for a very different kind of performance—much looser than a nightclub or concert hall and with quite a bit of interaction with the audience (who were mostly musicians). Perez opens her home for music one Sunday per month at 2 p.m. with the music starting an hour later. The suggested donation, $20.00, gives you admission and all the food you can eat, and the food is good! The “season” for Perez Jazz runs through May and picks up again in September. I highly recommend checking it out.

The other is a place I’ve mentioned before, Zeb’s in Manhattan. Presented in guitarist Saul Rubin’s loft, a different singer is featured every Wednesday. He originally started the series so that his daughter, who wanted to be a singer, would have a place to sing. Rubin has always been involved in his own music production companies and has wonderful instruments for artists to perform on. The groups can be any size, but usually include a piano trio to accompany the featured vocalist with the caveat that Rubin will also play. Fortunately, he is a very good musician (he currently performs with Sonny Rollins), so it’s not a liability. I heard another Australian-born chanteuse on Wednesday, Jane Irving. She performed with her husband, Kevin Hailey, on bass, Steve Williams on drums, and Rubin on guitar. The evening started slowly, but by the end of Irving’s set, the audience was filled with vocalists for the jam session that follows every concert. Several months ago, Rubin thought he was going to have to close the doors, but a philanthropically-minded landlord and a partnership with veteran music advocate Cobi Narita of the Jazz Center of New York has breathed new life into Zeb’s. The start time for Rubin’s jazz vocalist series is between 8 and 9 p.m., and the jam session starts around 10:30. The suggested donation is $10.00 and wine and chips are available at no extra charge. Narita’s concerts are usually held on Saturday. Her websites offers a list of upcoming events.


There are other “jazz parlors” around New York and San Francisco. Pianist Connie Crothers holds them in her apartment in Brooklyn and one in Half Moon Bay (just south of San Francisco), Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, has been putting on concerts for decades featuring international artists. I’m sure that every city has people who would rather not go to a concert venue where one has to negotiate over-priced food, loud table service, and noisy clientele who are only there to drink when all they really want to do is hear live music. These are usually the people who will put on concerts in their homes. It’s a wonderful way to advocate for live music … without tacitly advocating the worship of Mammon.

Remembering İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012)

Composer, musicologist, record producer, and genre bending pioneer İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012) died last month after a long illness. Composer Bob Gluck was one of the last people to do an extensive interview with him, so we asked him to describe this one-of-a-kind music maker for us in memoriam.—FJO

“Since my early age I was interested in what was going on in the world in terms of music, new music. New music, that’s what interests me, new music. It was my principle: you have to start with what’s going on today and then, gradually, go back to the past, where it came from. Rather than start in the past and going forward, you should know what’s going on today in the world […laughter…], [and then learn] where did it come from. That was my view.”—Ilhan Mimaroğlu, interview by Bob Gluck, January 3, 2006

Serious but funny, irreverent but thoughtful, categorical but reflective, politically engaged yet a pessimist—or was he a realist? I found myself silently testing each of these seeming contradictions when I met Ilhan Mimaroğlu in 2006. I found in him a nobility, a deep seriousness, interrupted periodically by bursts of laughter. From time to time, he responded to a question by removing a book from the shelf and reading aloud, quoting from his own published words.

I interviewed Mimaroğlu in the evening on January 3, 2006. Gungor, his wife, met me at the door and offered me tea before bringing me into her husband’s study. The composer was seated comfortably in an easy chair in that dimly lit room. Surrounded by books in Turkish and English, the room was filled with hazy smoke. Breathing was not easy for me, but neither was it for Mimaroğlu, as he chain-smoked through our two hours together.  We joined together in coughs and wheezes.

Ilhan Mimaroğlu

Snapshot of Ilhan Mimaroğlu taken by the author during their interview in 2006.

I remembered my first awareness of Mimaroğlu, his recording with Freddie Hubbard, Sing a Song of Songmy: Threnody for Sharon Tate. I responded to that work because it combined so many of the seemingly conflicting aesthetic worlds that I loved. The music startled me because I never heard so many of them present in the very same piece. Is it a narrative work with semantic meaning? Is it a tonal work for strings? Is it a construction of electronic sounds? An angular post-bop jazz tune, with an asymmetrical rhythmic riff, yet lyrical trumpet solo line?  The answer to all these questions is resoundingly yes! Somehow, Mimaroğlu‘s answer to all these possibilities was “yes,” reconciled within a single work.

I knew another side of his work from listening to radio shows that Mimaroğlu produced for the Pacifica radio station WBAI. He crafted them at home, only stopping by the station to drop off the tapes. The shows represented, no surprise, an eclectic mix of music.

This reconciling of seeming irreconcilable possibilities tells us much about Ilhan Mimaroğlu.

Some Ilhan Mimaroğlu Aphorisms

“Take an ‘o’ out of ‘good’ and its ‘God’. Add a ‘d’ to ‘evil’ and its ‘devil’. To recognize ‘God’ and ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘devil’, one must be a proofreader.”

“We composers worry so much about posterity that we fail to notice what’s happening to our posterior.”

“Calling a judge ‘justice’ is like calling an artist ‘masterpiece.’”

“You know, there really are many under-appreciate composers. But being under-appreciated doesn’t make someone special! The world is full of them!”

The musical world of the late 1960s and ’70s New York might be categorized as the art of parallel play. Serial composers, largely uptown at Columbia, had little truck with minimalists and other eclectic composers who were largely downtown. Art music and popular music rarely intersected. Composers/performers and producers rarely inhabited the same worlds, never mind the same bodies.

Somehow Ilhan Mimaroğlu embodied each of these, all at the same time. He was an engaged composer and informal teacher, uptown at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Mimaroğlu, in fact, came to New York to study musicology at Columbia in order to further his journalistic interests. But, having read about, sought out, and then heard electronic music recordings in Turkey, he discovered the Columbia-Princeton studio.

Also during his time at Columbia, Mimaroğlu’s studied privately with Edgard Varèse. “Most of the time, I used to talk to him over the telephone,” he remembered. “One day, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do in New York? What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I want to study with you!’ He said, ‘All right, let’s start!’ […laughs…] So, I would go to his place, something like every week. It was very interesting. I used to write a few things and he would take what I wrote and he’d start adding notes to it.”

The compositions Mimaroğlu completed during his years at Columbia were intuitive in formal approach. He was more sympathetic to Pierre Schaeffer than to the serialists, noting that “particularly the idea that electronic music and cinema were in a parallel, the same thing basically. One is for the eye, the other for the ear. It is the same idea for me and for Pierre Schaeffer.”

In contrast, of Milton Babbitt he said, “I may not be too fond of his music, but I must admit it’s important. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s not always a great pleasure to listen to, but he’s an important composer, yes.”

In Mimaroğlu’s 1965 electronic work for tape Agony, one hears within this construction of abstract sounds clearly discernable musical gestures and phrases. A three-pulse figure becomes a leitmotif, engaging in call and response. What is most striking is the accessibility of the music, despite the unfamiliarity of the sounds, the lack of pitched materials or conventional musical syntax. If anything, the music is like a conversation, and in the final minutes a delightful one at that.

At Columbia-Princeton, Mimaroğlu became an accidental teacher, recalling that “since [Studio director Vladimir] Ussachevsky was a busy person, he would say to me, at the very last minute during an electronic music class: ‘You go teach this class!’ He would just leave and I would take over. This happened a couple of times.”

But Mimaroğlu may have been aesthetically more at home downtown, during a time when there was little cross-fertilization. He befriended two young composers who were active in Mort Subotnick’s Buchla and tape studio on Bleecker Street in the Village. Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall (who was Mimaroğlu’s fellow musicology student at Columbia) were by day salesmen at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue and 43nd Street. Palestine recalls that Mimaroğlu was a regular customer whose music he liked. He was “very nice to us. His music had a dramatic tinge to it; it wasn’t so dry. And he also wasn’t a dry professor type of guy. In those old days when the Nonesuch records came out, Silver Apples [of the Moon by Morton Subotnick] came out, and also a piece by him. They were more light, sort of accessible electronic pieces. They weren’t all that serialism. I do remember that. At the time I appreciated it because I was beginning to overdose on all that heavy profundity.”

I’ve wondered about his mixture of seriousness and humor; his disinterest in authority, and, maybe, his sadness.

Mimaroğlu’s jokester side could be disarming. For instance, he had come to admire the music of fellow countryman Bülent Arel, a future important figure at Columbia-Princeton, before either came to New York. “I remember playing a trick on him. I sat at the piano and started banging the keys [Mimaroğlu makes “busy” sounds with his mouth] and recorded it. I said, “Bülent, I want to play you something. It’s a new piece by Stockhausen.” So I played it. With great seriousness, he starts examining it, analyzing it. […laughs…] When I told him what I did, he got very angry.”

But then, there’s a sense of absolute dedication not only to musical expression, but in a larger sense to justice. I asked Mimaroğlu where he gained the sense of moral outrage represented throughout his writings and musical works. He told me that he was raised during an era of serious moral questioning and danger, but within an environment where critical thinking was encouraged:

I guess I grew up in a country where you are allowed to think about such matters. Turkey, the Turkey of Ataturk, was a totally new country. We used to see signs here: ‘“How happy is the person who says ‘I am a Turk’,” for instance. And indeed as I grew up and found out what was going on in other countries of the world, [it became clear] that this was a truly exceptional country, no question about that! Particularly the [World War II] war years…. So, came 1939, and we were all scared that Turkey would be invaded by the Nazis. Thankfully it wasn’t. It came very close. We came to the center of Anatolia, because [we thought that] they were going to come. Then we returned again to Istanbul. Finally in 1945, I remember the day when the Nazis were vanquished and there were celebrations in the street. So, those were important years for me.

Mimaroğlu emerged from this experience having learned a cautionary tale, a profound and large one for a teenager. His father had died when he was still a baby. His mother no doubt felt an additional sense of weight when thinking about the future career of this musically focused child. She supported his interests, provided they remained just an interest. As a result, Mimaroğlu embarked on training for a professional career, as a lawyer, a choice made quite casually, a story he tells with some humor:

My mother wanted me to be an architect, like my father. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I said, “All right, let’s go to that school where they teach architecture.” The people at the school said, “You’ll have to pass an examination to enter.” What is the examination? They put a vase on top of the table and they said [to] draw it, which I did and I failed […laughter…]. What’s that got to do with architecture? So, what do we do with this child? At that time, my mother and stepfather were in Ankara and the only university where you can enter without an examination was the law school. So they said, “Why don’t you enter the law school?” And I said, “Why not?” And I did. And that was the story. Well, I finished it. I have a law diploma that I am keeping […laughter…] somewhere.

The musical young adult decided instead to become a journalist, landing a job with the Associated Press. One thing led to another and he was selected to receive a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study music journalism at Columbia University.

Mimaroğlu’s sense of commitment to people translated into his concern for young composers. Eric Chasalow, then a student at Columbia-Princeton during Mimaroğlu’s time, is one example. Chasalow, now the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University, recalls, “While I did not know him well—Ussachevsky introduced us in about 1979—he programmed my music on his radio program on several occasions. He was a refreshingly no-nonsense guy with no patience for anything but the music. He was very generous to me. He was eager to hear what each generation coming into the Electronic Music Center was doing, and when he heard something he respected, he would support it however he could.”

Arguably, Ilhan Mimaroğlu’s most substantial impact was as a jazz record producer at Atlantic Records. One might not expect a Columbia-Princeton composer to engage with jazz. At Atlantic, Mimaroğlu produced some of the most important recordings of the 1960s, including works by Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. This was an interest that began early in life. He cultivated it with persistence and, ironically, through a form of intrigue:

I was into jazz all the time growing up. I had a group of friends who were also interested. We used to listen to recordings. I used to play the clarinet. I used to give concerts myself, with this friend or that friend, a guitarist, whatever—it was a jazz group primarily that I was into. At school that’s what I was doing. I used to go to the [school’s] radio station and I started playing records. It was my pleasure. And then one day, the discipline board was in session. I was playing jazz records again. They sent someone, made me turn off the radio and gave me a punishment. […laughs…] That I told to my mother and she went to the director of the school and said, “Is it a bad thing that the child plays music to his friends? Does he interfere with his classes? Why are you doing this?” On that day, they permitted me again to play music on the sound system, but the punishment remained in my [academic] records. And mother didn’t tell me [until] after I finished school, so I didn’t get spoiled [from] what she did to protect me.

Ilhan Mimaroğlu became a record producer, he explained to me, “just to earn some money…. When I came here on a Rockefeller Fellowship, I had heard about Ahmed Ertegun [and] Nesuhi Ertegun, and I went to visit their offices. I remember Nesuhi taking me to a nightclub to hear Errol Garner. That’s one of the memories, yes… They were jazz experts. So they said go ahead and do jazz, do whatever you want.” After a time, Mimaroglu expressed interest in producing recordings with less commercial potential. “I just wanted to do some recordings and release some that wouldn’t sell. […laughs…]. So, [my label] Finnadar was born. They were happy to let me do it.” The label became an offprint of Atlantic Records. The Ertegun brothers were supportive and told him that they would keep paying, as long as he didn’t spend too much money. “And I knew how not to spend much money!” said Mimaroğlu. The array of Finnadar recordings would include works by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Mimaroğlu’s own work, and that of many others.

Open-minded yet sometimes quite sure of himself, warm and sometimes cantankerous, Ilhan Mimaroğlu was at his core complex and mysterious. His life was one of musical multiplicities. While living in the United States, he and his wife maintained strong ties with their homeland. Throughout his life, Mimaroğlu continued to write and publish in Turkish. While the music of this eclectic composer remains little known, he produced iconic records and created works of depth and breadth. Hopefully the passage of time will help motivate greater interest in the music of this truly fascinating man. Surely over time, stories will continue to emerge about his kindness and commitment to students and colleagues.

*

Please note: The following audio files—recorded during Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006, interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu—are unedited and unprocessed and are occasionally less than optimal. They are presented here due to their historic importance.

Part One of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu.
Part Two of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu

Part Three of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu

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Bob Gluck is a pianist, music historian, and educator. He is associate professor at The University at Albany and the author of You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). His latest recording, Textures and Pulsations, a series of piano and electronics duets with Aruan Ortiz, will be released this fall on Ictus Records.

An Honor to Celebrate (and a Shame Long Forgotten)

I’m a bit late this week in contributing my regular ad-hoc chain of paragraphs to the NewMusicBox blog area, something I still think of as “Chatter” and, in my most nostalgic moments, as “In the Second Person” commentary. And there’s plenty of reason for me to feel nostalgic, which is the same reason why these paragraphs are getting posted later than usual. I spent the entire weekend at the 2012 conference of Chamber Music America which culminated in honoring (with its highest honor, the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) one of my mentors and a lifelong role model, American composer and music advocate John Duffy. (And I do mean the entire weekend—the panels, plenary sessions, showcase performances, concerts, and awards ceremonies spanned early Friday morning to late Sunday night.) While there was no time to write over the weekend and on Monday (a national holiday) I was in no shape to string sentences together, I tried to the best of my time and ability to report on stuff as it happened via Twitter.)

Ed Harsh and John Duffy

A meeting of generations: New Music USA CEO Ed Harsh and Meet The Composer Founder John Duffy. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

Although he has written over 300 compositions including operas, symphonic works, scores for films and television programs, and incidental theatre music, Duffy is perhaps most broadly known for being the founder of Meet The Composer. Aside from the fact that Meet The Composer is one of two organizations (the other being the American Music Center) that merged last year to form New Music USA (the umbrella under which NewMusicBox, and many other programs, now exist), MTC and John Duffy will always hold a special place in my heart. I was among the myriad composers who received support from MTC for premiere performances of my own music which might not have happened otherwise (since I was not on its staff, I was able to). At one point in my life, I worked for a firm that handled public relations for MTC and in so doing learned how much the organization contributed to the sea-change in the presence of contemporary music and its variety in the established classical music landscape. Duffy was one of the first people to decry the artificial lines between musical genres—famously declaring Charlie Parker’s alto saxophone improvisations to be music on par with the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach. And the concept of a composer-in-residence is now pretty easy to grasp; before MTC, not so much.

But, above and beyond that, the persona of John Duffy made me realize that if you are a composer, your entire life is a composer residency. Everything we do as composers and how we interact with everyone in our community affects our field as a whole. On a personal note, Duffy has been among the most generous people I have ever met. Many years ago when he was moving and decided to get rid of his many LP recordings accumulated over decades (which was formidable), he learned that I was a vinyl obsessive so he actually gave me his entire collection. Acquiring these recordings was my introduction to lots of extraordinary repertoire including the symphonies of William Schuman and—believe it or not—the first recordings I ever heard of wind band music. Hearing these recordings, like everything else I got from knowing Duffy (corporeal and non-corporeal), broadened my mind and helped to open me up to the whole world of new American music which is something that needed to happen in order for me to do what I do now.

The entire 2012 Chamber Music America conference centered on advocacy and musical diversity, which is a tribute to the legacy of John Duffy. Often CMA’s Bogomolny awardees are honored with chamber music concerts highlighting their work. Duffy has only composed one chamber work to date (would that he would write more) so only that work was presented. But even if he had composed 66 string quartets (as did Joseph Haydn, a factoid the Attacca Quartet proclaimed during their showcase when they announced that they intend to record all of them someday), the only way to honor Duffy would be to play one of his pieces along with the music of others, since honoring him is ultimately about embracing all composers. So on CMA’s celebratory concert at Symphony Space entitled “Sounds American,” alongside Duffy’s composition, We Want Mark Twain, was the performance of a new work for oud and wind quintet by Palestinian-American Simon Shaheen performed by Shaheen with the Imani Winds, Cuban-American jazz pianist Martin Bejerano’s compositions for his own trio, and performances by the genre defying group Fieldwork of compositions by each of its three members: Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey.

Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers Ensemble

Amir El-Saffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble. Left to Right: Carlo DeRosa, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, percussion; Amir El-Saffar, trumpet and santoor; Ole Mathisen, tenor saxophone; Tareq Abboushi, buzuq; and Zaafir Tawil, oud. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.

If that concert seems all over the map, the showcases went even further. I already mentioned the Attacca Quartet who before playing Haydn opened with a selection from John’s Book of Alleged Dances by John Adams–the provocatively titled “Toot Nipple.” Three brass quintets were on hand, among them the Gaudete Brass, 75% of whose showcase repertoire was by living Americans, and half of it by women composers. Then there was bassist Mario Pavone’s sextet whose pianist Peter Madsen blew my mind with his ability to make a fast tremolo ring out like a brass instrument, and Todd Marcus’s Quartet whose percussionist Eric Kennedy, even when comping the other players, carved out compelling melodies from striking all different areas of his various drums and cymbals. I was perhaps most balled over by Amir El-Saffar’s ensemble which navigated a musical realm somewhere between the traditional Iraqi maqams of his heritage with swinging jazz in charts he described as being “bitonal in the keys of F and B half flat”!

The panel discussions I attended—broaching subjects from using social media for audience connectivity to the future of recordings—spanned a similar broad reaching aesthetic, as did the two plenary sessions. The second, by Randy Cohen of Americans For the Arts, reaffirmed Duffy’s sentiments in how he tied the arts to society. He also introduced much of the audience, myself included, to the “shame flute”—a Medieval instrument that was clasped around the neck of bad musicians who were forced to parade around the town playing on it to humiliate them for the awful sounds they inflicted on their neighbors. I think we need to reclaim the instrument for new music. The first plenary, a talk by Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization (which advocates for Black and Latino classical musicians), led me to a whole day of listening on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day instead of writing this report. Once again, it all goes back to John Duffy (except for the shame flute); it was a joy to see him so publicly acknowledged and honored for his commitment to all of us.

John Duffy CMA Group Photo

Left to right: Fran Richard (of ASCAP), Tania León, John Duffy, Frank J. Oteri and his wife Trudy Chan, ASCAP’s Michael Spudic, and Ed Harsh. Photo by Shelley Kusnetz, courtesy Chamber Music America.